Prior to Walter Reed’s discovery in 1900 that the Ædis Egypti mosquito was the vector for yellow fever, the prevailing medical theory taught that yellow fever (and, in fact, diseases in general) were spread by the foul odors from decaying matter, be it rotting vegetation, human and animal waste lying in the streets and gutters or decomposing corpses. The cemeteries, in particular, were held up to intense scrutiny because the “miasma,” often referred to as “noxious fumes” and "mal-odorous gases," emanating from the soft soil of in-ground burial was particularly severe. It was believed that the corpses rotting away in the ground created "polluted soil;" a phrase that shows up frequently in official records. Add to the mix the fact that the cemeteries were breeding grounds for flies and mosquitoes which, unbeknownst to the city, were the real culprits in the spread of disease, over and above the smells. In 1816 there was a "crevasse" - a break in the levees. The rear of the city, including St. Louis Cemetery, was inundated with water. Much of the emphasis on the role of water and burial began at this time, as people from outside came, saw the flood, saw the cemetery and published accounts of floating coffins. Did coffins float? Yes. Was it an annual occurrence? No. (Nor has water ever been addressed in any official capacity as an obstacle to burial.) The hazard from the crevasse was not the floating coffins but the months of standing water. Because of it, there was a high mosquito population the following year. This, combined with the fact that thousands of newcomers were arriving annually to exploit the burgeoning seaport - newcomers who were not acclimated to tropical diseases - caused the death rate to skyrocket until it was greater than the birth rate. In 1817 the City of New Orleans suffered a terrible yellow fever epidemic. In 1819 came a second yellow fever epidemic. At that time, several city appointed committees (The Board of Sanitation, The Board of Health, and others) demanded that the city take action against the "outrageous nuisance...of such loathesome sights and disgusting smells.” Demanding that the City fathers take action to clean up the cemeteries, the Council – in true New Orleans fashion – responded by doing…
In 1822 came a third yellow-fever epidemic which was nearly as severe and now the demand could no longer be ignored. So, the State appointed board of health made the following recommendations to the New Orleans City Council:
BOARD OF HEALTH
At a meeting of the Board of Health on Thursday the 10th of May, 1822, C. CARRABY, esq., Vice-President, pro tem. the following resolutions was adopted and ordered to be published;
That the Board of Health consider the deposit of filth in the back parts of the city, as well as the saturated and infected wood of the banquettes and gutters of the city, as most prejudicial to public salubrity. In order to prevent their putrid emanations, so destructive to the health of the citizens, the Board are of the opinion that it is indispensable – First, to throw hereafter all the filth into the current of the river – Second, between the months of November and January next, to cut away and replace with stone all the wooden gutters throughout the city, giving the banquettes the same breadth as in Chartres street – Third, that it would be dangerous at this season of the year, to have earth dug up in any of the streets, in order to carry on the paving.
Also, that the present resolution be submitted to the city council.
I certify the foregoing to be a true copy from the minutes.
H. K. GORDON, Sec’ry.
New Orleans, June 12th, 1822
The BOARD of HEALTH
To the Physicians of the City
To enable the Sextons, when reporting the interments, to give at the same time a correct account of the diseases of which the subjects die, the Physicians are respectfully solicited to leave with the friends of the deceased, a memorandum in writing, to accompany the corpse, of the disease of which the patient died.
June 12. H. K. GORDON, Sec’ry
Extract from the Code of Health
“Art. 7 It shall be the duty of the Board of Health to publish in at least two of the gazettes printed in the city of New Orleans, every day during the months of May, June, July, August, September and October, and once every week during the rest of the year, a detailed account of the deaths in the said city and its suburbs, designating the name, age, place of nativity and mode of the deceased, the time of his residence in the city, and nature of his sickness, and, if possible (in cases of the fever which my be supposed infectious,) the place at which the infection is supposed by his attendants to have been taken.”
BOARD OF HEALTH
The season has recurred when it becomes the duty of the Board of Health to execute with rigor the provisions of the “Code of Public Health,” intended to prevent the introductions of pestilential disease from abroad, and to guard against its cosmetic occurrence by strict attention to the removal or correction of local causes within the city. Referring with pleasure to the happy issue of their labors during the last year, they call with increased confidence upon the inhabitants of every description to co-operate with the Board in their efforts to effect a similar result. While a rigid quarantine will be enforced where danger is apprehended from a foreign source, a system of police measures for the cleanliness of the city has been digested, which the Board, with the enlarged means placed at their disposal, are determined to carry into operation.
BOARD OF HEALTH
AT a meeting of the Board on Tuesday, the 2d of July, 1822, the following resolutions were adopted: –
Resolved, That the Board of Health consider the burying ground of the Roman Catholics a hot bed of infection, injurious to the health of the inhabitants of this city, in consequence of the digging of graves too often repeated, on a space of ground too small, and infected by the putrefaction of bodies buried thereon, and that said burying ground is quite too near the city.
The Board of Health are of opinion, that in order to remove the nuisance occasioned by the said burying ground to the said inhabitants, it would be proper to discontinue as soon as possible the interments therein – and, pending the execution of the measures which the City Council may deem proper to this effect, that the ground be dug in the parts least infected of the said burying ground.
Resolved, That the Board of Health consider the method pursued by the negroes employed to clean out the gutters of the city, is extremely dangerous to the health of the inhabitants of this city – that this method tends to develop and spread with more force the emanations of the putrid and infecting water of the gutters of this city. The Board of Health are of opinion, that instead of permitting the said infected waters to be thrown into the streets from the gutters, it would be more proper to order, that the said water should be pushed on to the draining canals behind the city, and that the said gutters should be swept and washed every day by the means of fresh water taken from the river, or from the wells of the citizens.
Resolved, That the present resolutions shall be transmitted immediately to the city council of New Orleans.
Resolved, That hereafter it shall be the duty of the health wardens, to mention in the report which they are required to make every day, the names and sirnames (sic), the name of the street, and the number of the house of every person contravening the law entitled “An act to provide against the introduction of infectious diseases,” and the titles established by the Board of Health. It shall also be the duty of the said wardens to hand in personally their reports at the Assembly Room in the Custom House, and at the hour of the meetings of the Board of Health.
I certify the foregoing to be a true copy from the Minutes.
H. K. GORDON
New Orleans, July 5, 1822
These were the board’s recommendations. The City responded with a complete cemetery overhaul and passed a series of ordinances and resolution governing funerals, cemeteries and burial – none of which involve water as an obstacle to in-ground burial. (NOTE: I have only included the ordinances that specifically address interment.)
City Council of New Orleans
An ORDINANCE respecting the Burial Grounds.
The City Council decrees as follows : –
ARTICLE 1st. – From the 1st of September next no interment shall take place in the present Burial Ground situated between Conti and St. Louis Street but under a penalty of one hundred dollars to be imposed on the sexton of the said Burial Ground.
ART. 2d. – From the above date all persons, dying in the city of New Orleans and its environs, shall be buried either in the burial ground of the fauxbourg St. Mary, or in the new burial ground formed by the reunion of the islets marked upon the plan of the City Surveyor, No. 38, 39, 40 and 41 – two thirds of the said burial ground being apportioned for Roman Catholics, and the remaining third for the burying of Protestants and other persons not profession the Catholic religion.
ART 3d. – Persons dying after the 1st September, next, shall be carried to their respective burial grounds, and deposited in graves which shall not be less than four feet deep, and dug three feet apart, following the line which will be designated by the City Surveyor.
The Sextons shall have the authority upon application of the proper owners or heirs of graves to open the same, but no graves shall be opened before one (1) year for an adult and six months for a child, where human bodies were interred, unless by a special permission from the Board of Health; provided that grave shall be opened by any sexton where death has resulted from any contagious disease, until two (2) years shall have elapsed from the date of such death and burial.
It shall be the duty of the Sextons to obey the orders given them from time to time by the Mayor, and they shall keep for their respective burial grounds a register, in which shall be inserted the proper and Christian names, ages, and professions, of all person who shall be buried or placed in tombs; to watch that no injury or damage be committed on the tombs or graves entrusted to their care; to prevent cattle from entering the said burial grounds; to render every day to the Commissary General of Police a certified copy of the interments borne upon their registers; to produce at all times their registers when they shall be demanded by the Mayor or City Council; and to hand over the said registers to such persons as shall be appointed to succeed them in case of their dismissal; and every Sexton who shall neglect to conform with the above dispositions, shall pay a fine of twenty dollars, and shall be dismissed from his office.
ART. 5th. – It shall be the duty of the City Surveyor to visit the burial grounds once every week, to mark out the lines for the formation of the graves and tombs, reserving all round the said enclosure places sufficient for the construction of tombs. It shall be the duty of the Commissary of Police to visit the burial grounds every day, to insure the execution of the present Ordinance; to receive from the Sextons their respective certificates of interments, and to cause the same to be given into the office of the Mayor, together with his report of the Police of the said burial grounds.
ART. 6th – The tombs which shall be hereafter constructed, must be of brick, the walls twelve inches thinks, cemented with good mortar in all their joints, within and without; – and all persons constructing tombs and neglecting to comply with the present regulations, shall cause said tomb to be demolished at their own expense, and shall besides pay a fine of fifty dollars, one half being for the benefit of the informer, and the other for that of the corporation.
ART. 7th – All free persons who shall destroy or damage the tombs or fences of the burial grounds of the said city, or the places hitherto used as such, shall pay a fine not exceeding fifty dollars, nor less than twenty; and all slaves so offending, shall receive twenty-five lashes, without prejudice to the claims of the persons injured, on their respective proprietors or owners.
All the Ordinances contrary to the regulations of the present, are, and remain repealed.
A. Peychaud, Recorder.
Approved the 5th Aug. 1822
J. Roffignac, Mayor
[Certified] Jules Davreac. (?)
Aug. 16. Secretary to the Mayor
 Report of the Board Of Sanitation, 1819.
 Salubrity – Public health and sanitary conditions.
 Also spelled “faubourg,” meaning suburb or outlying neighborhood. The Faubourg St. Mary was across Canal Street in the American Sector.
 In 1854 this was amended to three feet deep.
 This disproves the “Year And A Day” claim. In 1854 the ordinance was amended to include “tombs, vaults and grave.
 Graves = in-ground burials, Tombs = above-ground interment.